Long Beach high school students are learning to advocate for change with the help of a statewide nonprofit: Californians for Justice.

The organization began in the Bay Area in the ‘90s amid a wave of anti-affirmative action legislation happening across California, explained communications director Hannah Esqueda Freeman.

“There was this idea of really organizing with communities of color and young voters to really combat that, and really build those stronger coalitions celebrating communities of color in our culture,” Esqueda Freeman said.

Since then, the nonprofit has narrowed its focus to specifically fight within the education sectors, which is accomplished by working with high school students across four locations in California: San Jose, Oakland, Fresno, and of course, Long Beach.

Locally, Californians for Justice focuses on addressing equity challenges within the Long Beach Unified School District, specifically regarding racial justice and diversity efforts in five high schools, Esqueda Freeman said. Currently, Californians for Justice has a presence at Jordan, Long Beach Poly, Cabrillo, Wilson and Lakewood high schools.

While there can often be an assumption that students or young people don’t care or pay attention to the issues facing their communities, that is very much not the case, Esqueda Freeman said. 

“They may just not have the tools or resources to really have their voices heard,” Esqueda Freeman said. “Everyone needs to be at the table to have success.”

Functioning largely like a campus club, students are offered pizza and the chance to talk about what they like and dislike at school, and how they can start to change it, Esqueda Freeman said.

From there, discussions grow into political education, and students are prepared with the tools to challenge power dynamics and to lead along with both school administration and other youth-led organizations, said Long Beach organizer Joshua Jimenez.

The organization is currently in the process of defining its goals for the next three to five years, which involves a youth-developed survey to identify what key issues are impacting Black and brown students, said Jimenez, adding that concerns around mental health and policing in schools have been large priorities for the Long Beach chapter.

While the Long Beach chapter is still in the process of rebuilding its student base since the pandemic, there are about 25 core leaders, which include student interns and presidents of school chapters, who attend additional meetings after school at the Long Beach office.

Two students are seated on a couch as one student sits on the ground in front of them. The student sitting on the right on the couch raises her hand.
Mia Adams, right, a senior at Wilson High School, raises her hand during a Californians for Justice meeting on March 17, 2023, discussing gender oppression, gender identity, and the cis-heteropatriachy. Photo by Tess Kazenoff.

It was the possibility of an internship that led Spencer Lara to first join the organization as a high school student back in 2016.

“But once I arrived, we had conversations about racism, conversations about gender-queer people … which inspired me to explore my own identity and come out eventually,” said Lara, who then re-joined the organization as a staff member in 2021. “(I) found community in other people that were talking about things that we didn’t learn about in school.” 

Over the years, Californians for Justice members have fought for numerous initiatives in Long Beach, including advocating for the district to prioritize student health and resources for Black students, which culminated in a $750,000 commitment from the district to develop a Black Student Achievement Initiative, and a $1.6 million commitment to establish wellness centers at every high school campus. 

Specifically at Wilson High School, Californians for Justice student leaders recently led a series of relationship-centered school trainings throughout March, which provided mandatory professional development to all of the school’s teachers, explained Mia Adams, a senior at Wilson. 

“We got to share our voices too with them and what we experienced at school, and how relationships are so important with their students and how it impacts us,” Adams said.

At Wilson, surveys demonstrated that Black students have the lowest sense of belonging, Adams said. 

Teachers were shown a video in which Wilson students were asked, “Do you feel like your teachers care about you? And how can they show that to you?” Responses ranged from “yes,” “no,” to “some of them,” explained Adams.

“A lot of teachers came up to me after being like … ‘That student’s in my classroom, and I don’t want them feeling like they don’t have anyone that they can relate to around our campus,’” Adams said.

At Wilson, only one of four students could identify a teacher, administrator or staff member that they connect with, added Julius Jackson, also a senior at Wilson.

“I had my moments where I just expressed my personal feelings and my personal experiences,” said Jackson of the professional development series.

While the presentations largely touched on racial and ethnic inclusivity, Jackson hopes to work toward more queer inclusivity at Wilson.

“It’s kind of more recent that queer is being accepted as a norm, so it’s all something we have to teach (teachers),” Jackson said.

Teachers were able to provide feedback and share their feelings as well, allowing both teachers and students to understand one another, Adams said. 

“CFJ has given us a space to be vulnerable with teachers and people that are in power over us,” Adams said. “At first, I think it was really hard to be able to talk about exactly how I was feeling or situations I’ve experienced at school because it’s hard to do that with administration there.”

Gradually, the situation has improved as the school has introduced new teachers, a new principal, and new staff that work to make students feel included, whether it’s showing up to games, or posting students on the Wilson Instagram account, Adams said.

“I have a lot of younger friends that go to Wilson, and I want that when I leave them, to still feel like they’re in a place that they belong and can be happy,” Adams said. “I think that so far, we’re on the road to that, and it might take a while. But I think that Wilson is moving in a positive direction.” 

A group of students are seated around a room, some are extending their arms and others are clapping.
Students extend their arms and clap as the Californians for Justice meeting ends on March 17, 2023. Photo by Tess Kazenoff.

Through her time with Californians for Justice, Adams said she has been given the opportunity to lead and to facilitate meetings, helping her to grow as a public speaker—skills she hopes to utilize in the future, hopefully as a family lawyer helping kids in bad situations, she said.

As a Black person, especially as a Black male, Jackson had grown up admiring important Black figures such as Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jackson said.

“Seeing them fight for our rights in the past, and like us still having some of those problems … as a kid, I was thinking that that looks like something I want to do, like I want to be that type of person,” Jackson said. “But I didn’t think I would be strong enough or brave enough to even be in a position that I can do that, that’s comparable at all to what they did.”

“Now being at CFJ, I can say, sure, it’s not like that on that national scale that they had, but it’s still something. It’s still something that I’ve grown through because of CFJ,” Jackson added. “And now I can say that I am brave enough and that I am strong enough and I can be that leader in the future. I just have to work for it.”

Donate to Californians for Justice here. The organization can be contacted here.